Show Hide image

Diary: Lisa Appignanesi

The reading cure and the madness of Big Pharma

Back from a late break and the inbox is filled to bursting, not only with the demands of work and life, but with hundreds of petitions, blog alerts and calls to march against the war in Gaza. Much as I know it's too hideously true, I cannot quite believe the horror the Israelis have unleashed in the brief span before Obama brings in a new order (we hope). So when I open an email bearing a letter from the Board of Deputies of British Jews, I am overjoyed. Sanity has broken through: "The Board calls for an immediate ceasefire, immediate negotiations between Israel and Hamas, and for lifting the economic blockade of Gaza, in order to allow the Gazan and Israeli people to live together in peace. There is no military solution, only a political one." Some 20 emails up, I learn the letter is a hoax. Tragic madness is once more enshrined.

I lunch with Andrew Franklin, chief honcho of Profile Books, and the philosopher/anthropologist Steven Lukes, whose Moral Relativism, the latest in the Big Ideas series I edit for them, is launched this month. Lukes' book probes the question of whether we really do have divergent views about good and evil, dignity and humiliation, or whether an underlying commonality exists. About Gaza, we agree there is no moral relativism and no argument. So we tell jokes, all of which seem to have divergent punchlines.

On to a lecture at Birkbeck by the American psychologist Gail Hornstein, who among much else maintains an online bibliography listing first-person narratives of madness from the 14th century on. These constitute an alternative history of psychiatry and its colonising classifications. As the bible of the profession, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, gears up for a new and even bigger edition, it sometimes seems as if all of human behaviour - except perhaps war - will fall on the side of that madness, which Big Pharma and the doctors can treat. It really would be nice to wake up in a brave new world where "social anxiety disorder" had re-emerged as shyness, treatable by friendship rather than antidepressant or anti-anxiety drugs; and Big Pharma had turned its attention to creating and treating illnesses such as WMS (war-mongering syndrome) or FBIM (financial bubble inducement mania). Bye-bye attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, which all of us who email and surf the internet suffer from and is really a part of a 21st century condition called being human.

Later that evening, I go to a panel discussion on "the reading cure" held by The Reader Organisation in partnership with The Lancet. Led by the remarkable Jane Davis , the group promotes the benefits of reading aloud together for mental patients, the terminally ill, disaffected school children - indeed, everyone and anyone. Their project now has some 80 programmes running in Merseyside and they're poised to extend it across the country. Jane Davis is passionate about the transformative properties that reading in a group can have. Clare Allan, whose brilliant novel Poppy Shakespeare chronicled life in a psychiatric facility, echoes her with some wry asides. More surprisingly, so too does Dr David Fearnley, who runs a reading group within his own hospital. When the patients read in turn, he notes that a rare quiet descends on the ward. A blessing in itself, I imagine. Reading has to be a whole lot less dangerous and far cheaper than a slew of pharmaceuticals. Performed in a group, it focuses attention and ensures the attentiveness of others to the readers: two matters basic to any treatment. And that's before you think of identifying with the lives and emotions a novel or poem presents.

I finish the week by reading the excellent submission to the Department of Culture, Media and Sport that Jonathan Heawood, the director of English PEN, has put together for the joint campaign by PEN and Index on Censorship to reform the English libel laws, which serve largely to silence writers, NGOs and investigative journalists. PEN is involved in the Convention on Modern Liberty, to be held on 28 February. The event, the brainchild of Anthony Barnett of Open Democracy and Henry Porter, the Observer columnist, will probe the erosion of our civil liberties. At its launch, they and Helena Kennedy gave rousing speeches before a sea of familiar battlers - Shami Chakrabarti, Jon Snow, Bob Geldof, Tim Garton Ash among them.

Then it's off to Paris. The Musée Rodin and London's Freud Museum have a fascinating exhibition on the two greats' collections of antiquities and there's an accompanying conference. Freud at least had the good sense to think of war as precipitating psychological illness and preferred talk to drugs. Collecting statuettes, jokes, slips and dreams has to be a saner form of madness than generating classifications.

Lisa Appignanesi is the president of English PEN and the author of "Mad, Bad and Sad: a History of Women and the Mind Doctors from 1800 to the Present"

This article first appeared in the 26 January 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Nixon went to China... Will Obama go to Iran?